I have the task of contributing this column, “Between the Lines,” to the chapter newsletter of my local RWA chapter. I have permission to publish these interviews here as well.
Two Debras, Two Golden Hearts: Two very different paths to publishing
Between the Lines with Debra Mullins & Debra Holland
Debra Mullins is the award-winning author of over a dozen historical romances from pirates to cowboys to Regency England to the Victorian period. Born and raised in the New York area, she moved west as an adult and loves old swashbuckler movies, Star Trek and cats.
You are a previous finalist of the Golden Heart award for unpublished authors. How did that recognition set the course for your career as an author?
Being a finalist gave me a great way to approach editors to pitch my manuscript. I was a finalist in 1996, pitched my book to an editor at RWA in July 1997 and had an offer in hand by January 1998.
You sold several books without an agent at the beginning. Would you do it again? Why or why not?
At the time, I had decided it would be easier to find an editor than an agent. Agents might love your work but turn you down for representation because they are unsure if they can sell it. Editors can buy work if they like it. So yes, I would do it again, though I have been agented consistently for the past 12 years or so. As a first sale author, you have a limited amount of say in what can be changed in a contract because you have no sales numbers to back up your requests. As an established author, the game changes and there is more than can be negotiated, so I prefer having an agent at this stage in my career.
What attracted you to Regency Historical fiction? Will you / Have you ever tried your hand at any other subgenre? Would you like to sometime?
My first book was a pirate adventure, my next two were Westerns. At that point Westerns were dying, so my editor requested I switch to England or Scotland. I’ve always enjoyed Regency romances, so that was the time period I picked. My current series, however, is Victorian, and I am also contracted for contemporary paranormal trilogy for Tor.
Can you describe your writing process—plot device first? or character first?
I am without a doubt a character writer. I start with characters and the internal conflict and theme, then have to find stuff for my characters to do for 300-plus pages (plot).
How do you develop a character arc for your hero/heroine?
I usually know what kind of internal conflict they have and where they need to end up, then work from there. A lot of what I do is gut instinct. If it feels right, it goes in, everything from the character’s name to his/her deepest internal issues.
What do you do to keep your ideas fresh and unique?
Keep up with current events. Technology may be changing, but people are essentially the same all through history. People today care about the same things people in past centuries cared about: survival, family, love, respect, etc. You can make that work in any sub-genre, and it resonates with the reader.
How did you develop your writing discipline? What keeps you making deadlines when you have a job and family?
Necessity. In order to meet my contractual obligations, I have to schedule things. I put my kids and day job first, then my writing. It has to be that way so I can keep my household afloat. This means I don’t have much of a social life outside of the writing community, which is probably why I met my husband at work. <G> My goal is to someday become a full time writer.
And last but not least, the one I ask everybody : ) What one piece of advice would you give a struggling unpublished writer?
I would say get feedback on your work, but don’t try and incorporate every suggestion given to you, and don’t ask twenty people when three will do. This is something that I see time and time again. Beginning writers get advice from too many people, then try and apply every suggestion. The result is a book that has lost its spark and doesn’t sound like yours anymore. Take the feedback and try to drill down to the underlying meaning. Example: Let’s say several different people tell you your hero shouldn’t be a prince because he is coming across as too wimpy, that he should be an FBI agent or an assassin or a vampire. The real feedback here is not that your hero has the wrong job, but that he is coming across as too weak. Your beta readers can probably point out areas that made them feel this way, and by making the hero stronger, you resolve the problem while still keeping your prince.
Debra’s Latest, Too Wicked to Love is available now.
For more information on Debra Mullins, visit her website
Debra Holland wears several hats when it comes to writing. As a psychotherapist, she writes nonfiction books. The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving is her first nonfiction book. Debra also writes fiction–Historical Western Romance, Contemporary Romance, Fantasy Romance, and Science Fiction. She currently has her award winning Historical Western Romance Series, The Montana Sky Series, on Kindle.
Debra publishes all her work under her own name. She lives in Southern California, with two dogs, two cats, and a boyfriend. She’s a second degree blackbelt and teaches martial arts. She also is a corporate crisis/grief counselor.
You are a former winner of the Golden Heart award for unpublished authors. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
I owe it all to the feedback I received from the Orange Rose Contest that year–2001. I revised the beginning of Wild Montana Sky because I had two judges tell me the hero and heroine met too late. In November, I entered it in the Golden Heart contest, and NEVER THOUGHT OF IT AGAIN! I didn’t know when calls went out–it never crossed my mind that I would final. The call was the BIGGEST surprise ever! I think I screamed because my boyfriend came running to see what was going on. He wasn’t sure if it was a happy scream or a bad scream.
Carol Prescott told me that being a GH finalist was like being on the Prom Court in high school. And she was right. It was my first conference,New Orleans, and I was also giving a workshop, “Understanding Men.” I had a BLAST. The friendships you can make with the other GH finalists are priceless. I’m especially close with the GH finalists from 2003, but that’s another book and another story.
I had several other finalists tell me they were not going to prepare an acceptance speech because they didn’t want to “jinx” winning. Since I’m a believer in positive, not negative, thinking, a few hours before the ceremony, I decided I’d better put something together. I was ironing my gown, thinking about what I might say, when I had this strong feeling sweep over me that I was going to win. I stopped ironing and went looking for a piece of paper, saying to myself, “I WILL be giving this speech. I’d better write everyone’s names down to thank so I don’t forget anyone.”
So many people told me that selling was the next step to winning, but it wasn’t for me.
Your book, however, languished unpublished for a decade due to marketing concerns for the genre you wrote in (i.e. Sweet Western). What gave you the impetus to self-publish?
By the time I’d finished the Wild Montana Sky (WMS) the historical market, especially Westerns, had tanked. Winning the GH led me to my first agent, and he couldn’t sell the book. Neither could the second, even though the historical market came back. The market is for sexy, not “sweet” books, that aren’t inspirationals. I was reluctant to sell to a small press because I didn’t like the covers on most small press books. (That has changed a lot in this last year or so.) I wrote another book in the Montana Sky series, Starry Montana Sky (SMS), which took second place in the Orange Rose contest.
In the meantime, I switched to writing fantasy, then, in the last couple of years, focused on nonfiction. While I was in “deadline hell,” writing The Essential Guide to Grief and Grieving, a couple of my friends from the Wet Noodle Posse (GH finalists 2003) began publishing their backlist and unsold books on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords and were doing very well. When I saw their success, I decided to self-publish WMS and SMS, but had to wait until I’d turned the grief book in. Because of my friends, I knew what to do (and what not to do.) We are sharing everything we know and learn about self-publishing with each other.
Can you describe the steps you took to publish the books in ebook form?
I’d had the books edited years ago, but did another read through of both. I went to the Bowker site to buy ISBN numbers. (You don’t need them for Kindle or Nook, but you do for Smashwords, so you might as well do it). My friends assured me that converting to ebook formatting might be time-consuming and tedious, but doable. Just follow the steps in the Smashwords guidebook. Not for me. I got stuck early on. I contacted one of the formatters suggested by Smashwords and paid him the outrageous sum of $20.00 per book. (Couldn’t believe he didn’t charge more. Would have paid $100 not to have to do it myself! ) Once he was finished, I uploaded the books on the Kindle site myself, as well as the others. All the sites are all similar. If I can do it, anyone can. Each took about 15 minutes, but a less tech challenged person could probably do it faster.
Who designed those lovely covers? What was that process like?
Delle Jacobs, one of my Wet Noodle Posse friends, and the first of us to self-publish her books. Delle won numerous Golden Hearts, but could never sell toNew York, although she did sell to some small presses. Now she has her rights back. She’s doing VERY well.
I’ve looked at covers for years, trying to figure out what I’d want on my covers if the books ever sold. (Not that I’d have any say in the matter.) I never found one. Then, a couple of weeks before publishing, while looking through a catalogue of science fiction and fantasy books, I saw a cover for a fantasy novel, and thought–this is what I want–clouds opening up to the sky. I showed the cover to Delle, then described a big white house, a rainbow in the sky, and the couple looking at the rainbow. For SMS, I wanted a night sky, stars, a moon, a horse, and a smaller house. She did a marvelous job.
Now a question about pricing. You had this finished product in your hands… how did you go about deciding how to price them and how was that a factor in the success of the books?
I read a couple of blogs, but mostly followed Delle’s advice. She’s had fantastic success at selling a book or two at an introductory price of .99, then having readers go back and buy the rest at higher prices.
Self-publishing percentages are 35% for books priced below 2.99 and 70% between 2.99 and 9.99. Obviously, I make way more money on Starry at 2.99. However, I’m an unknown author. Why should people take a risk on my book? That’s why WMS is .99. However, if you’re already published and have a following, I’d suggest 2.99. WMS is outselling SMS at about 4 or 5 to 1. Because of the low price, WMS has also made some of the Amazon top 100 lists, both Historical and Historical Romance. (Making the list was a wonderful surprise!)
In your opinion, what is the single most effective marketing tool you used to promote your books?
I actually haven’t promoted it that much, just posted it on Facebook and Twitter. Just this last week, I’ve done a few blogs. I’ve had friends post on Facebook and Tweet, too. I have more blogs lined up. Reviewers, too.
One thing we can all do for each other is post 5 star reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, whichever you buy your books from. Positive reviews make a big difference to any book, but especially self-published ones. For each review, my sales have risen a little to another level. I must confess that I’ve never posted a review until the last couple of months, but now I do every time I read a book I like.
And last but not least (I save this question for everyone!) What is the most important piece of advice you could share with an unpublished author?
Don’t give up! Trust that there is a publishing path for you, although you don’t know what it will look like or how (or when) it will come. Keep honing your craft. Keep writing.
Not selling Wild Montana Sky was very discouraging. It won the GH TEN years ago! Those first rejections hurt. Eventually, it happened enough that I shrugged them off when I got them. Now I’m SO glad I didn’t sell the books before. I guess there was a different plan for them, and I’m so grateful!
Wild Montana Sky is currently available.
For more information on Debra Holland, visit her website